Ethnic eats –

On a recent weekend morning, Alisia Duffy was perusing the produce department at Apna Bazar Farmers Market when she unwittingly found herself answering questions about a particular vegetable.

The vegetable in question: poi saag, a nutrient-rich vegetable — also known as Malabar spinach — that is consumed in abundance in the eastern states of India.

Until recently, Duffy, who describes herself as your run-of-the-mill Irish-American, didn’t know much about the leafy green vegetable.

But ever since she became a regular shopper at the market at Gateway Square shopping center in Hampden Township, Duffy’s had no problem learning about obscure (at least to her) produce and products: “I just Google everything,” she said.

Since the eight-aisle grocery opened in February, Duffy has become a convert to what she said is its extraordinarily fresh produce, great prices, and ingredients that are typically either hard to get or cost-prohibitive elsewhere.

This morning she was grabbing bunches of brilliant green cilantro — at 49 cents a bunch.

“This place has the freshest produce,” said Duffy, who lives just a few miles away in Mechanicsburg. “I was just so impressed with how fresh everything is.”

Duffy may seem an unlikely customer for a grocery outlet that caters to the culinary traditions of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but increasingly, proprietors of ethnic markets are banking on this kind of crossover appeal to expand a customer base beyond the already lucrative and growing immigrant population in central Pennsylvania.

In recent years, central Pennsylvania has seen an explosion of ethnic markets popping up east and west of the Susquehanna River fueled by a tide of new immigrants settling into communities across Dauphin and Cumberland counties and an evolving taste for international cuisines.

“Forty years ago, if you had opened up a Bosnian restaurant, it would have gone out of business relatively quickly. No one had heard of it,” said Jeff Palm, executive director of the Mechanicsburg Chamber of Commerce. “Now people can see all these foods on TV — the Food Network. They see how the food is prepared and it piques their interest. A lot of people in this area are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are here for tech and medical jobs. As they have come into the area, the businesses have grown.”

The growing number of markets, no doubt, offers convenience for shoppers who once took out-of-town treks to New Jersey, Philadelphia or Baltimore for bags of chakki atta, mango leaves, tindora or dry rose petals.

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A quick perusal of markets far exceeds one hundred shops representing a wide breadth of ethnic traditions, including Indian, Pakistani, Bhutanese, Thai, Korean, Nepali, and Middle Eastern, just to name a few. That doesn’t even include the more established bodega-style shops readily found in city centers and catering to a growing Latino demographic.

“Here it’s a lot of Indian families,” said Himanshu Bajaj, one of the proprietors at Apna Bazar, a chain established in 1995, and one of the largest southeast Asian grocery retailers in New York.

After studying the changing demographics in central Pennsylvania, Bajaj decided that Hampden Township was the perfect location for the newest grocery outlet.

Cumberland County is experiencing some of the largest growth in the state. The Asian population has nearly doubled and the Black population grew by 47.2% in the last decade, according to the latest US Census statistics. The population of residents of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity grew by 85%.

The explosion of more diversified demographics in Cumberland County in particular has been fueled by the presence of the US Army War College, Dickinson College and, increasingly in recent years, efforts on the part of faith communities to resettle refugees from across the globe.

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Economically, it’s a win-win situation, Palm said. The new arrivals have brought their culinary traditions, and in turn, a demand for those products. As a result, county residents have more choices to expand their food adventures, and they have the added advantage of living in communities filled with neighbors willing to teach them how to prepare new recipes.

“It circulates the money in the community,” Palm said. “I want Nepalese food? I don’t have to go to DC and take the money outside. I can have Nepalese food here. These people who have opened ethnic markets and restaurants are investing in our community and now the community has the ability to invest in them and give back to them. It all helps make it an international community.”

Fresh produce is one of the draws of the Apna Bazar Farmers Market. Dan Gleiter |

Apna Bazar offers a wide selection of organic foods and a stunning array of types of rice, many of them packed in 50-pound sacks. It carries strictly vegetarian foods — beans, lentils, puffed rice snacks, spices, chutneys, biscuit cookies as well as cheese, eggs and milk but no meats or seafood.

All are in high demand, Bajaj said, and not just from immigrants from southeast Asian countries. He said increasingly Americans are counted among his customer base.

“Indians are our main customers, but Americans also do shopping,” Bajaj said. “I am surprised how many Americans purchase food here because in India they don’t prepare and eat American food.”

In recent months, no fewer than five ethnic food retailers have opened along a five-mile stretch of the Carlisle Pike, joining already-established shops catering to an increasingly diverse demographic.

Just down the block from Apna, Baywand Sdiq, a native of Iraq, in February opened Soltan Bazar, which has a distinctly Mediterranean appeal and carries halal meats.

“My goal was as an international or Middle Eastern food [store], but right now there is Russian people, Ukraine people also or Greek people and they like it here. They see similar items here,” said Sdiq, who has lived in the US for seven years and is from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. “We have a lot of products and that’s between Middle East and Europe.”

Soltan Bazar offers an exquisite array of fresh walnuts, almonds and traditional candies. His inventory of dates are quite arguably beyond compare in the region. A shopper new to Middle Eastern foods may find an item or two that is unfamiliar, but most of Sdiq’s food products — rice, lentils, canned beans and spices to name a few — are part of a wide repertoire when it comes to ethnic foods.

“We had a big gap with Middle Eastern products in the area,” Sdiq said. “We had a couple of stores in the area, but it wasn’t enough. Many people from here were driving to New Jersey or Washington, DC to buy Middle Eastern foods. That’s another reason he opened the market.”

Sdiq, who previously owned Soltan Hookah Lounge in Hampden Township before selling it, said Hampden Township is fast attracting families from all across the Middle East.

“This is a very quiet and very clean area,” Sdiq said. “It doesn’t have much crime. People coming here are looking for a good community with good schools and there are churches and mosques here.”

Across central Pennsylvania, the landscape, in terms of diversity, has changed dramatically in recent decades.

Kim’s Market is located at 5490 Derry St. in Swatara Township. Over its three decades in business, the store has moved, expanded and now include food items for the Filipino and Korean communities, as well as other cultures. Dan Gleiter |

Thirty years ago, for instance, there were few Asian stores on the East Shore.

“Back then there were not a lot of immigrants here,” said Kim Lehoang, owner of Kim’s Market, a mainstay for Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian and Indonesian immigrants in the region.

Lehoang over the years has relocated and expanded her inventory to include food items for the Filipino and Korean communities, and beyond.

“There are people here now from a lot of different Asian countries,” said Lehoang’s daughter-in-law, Jennie Nguyen, who helps her run the grocery store and adjacent Vietnamese/Thai restaurant. “They come here and they can find a little bit of everything.”

After three decades in business, Kim’s Market draws a brisk trade with non-Asian customers.

“A lot of American customers are looking for Asian foods like sushi, Korean food and Japanese food,” Nguyen said. “They are learning to cook those foods. They are watching YouTube and going on the Internet to learn about them.”

Nguyen said central Pennsylvania lures immigrants from across the world.

“A lot of them say there is opportunity here,” she said. “They come here and they have a future. Back home there is no future. There is no freedom. If you are born poor back home, you are poor forever. Here you can work from the bottom up.”

Among the most recent influx is the Bhutanese population, which has by all estimates grown to a base of around 25,000 in south-central Pennsylvania. They are quite likely the single greatest contributor to the area’s population growth over the past decade, mostly through a vast secondary migration of families from other parts of the United States.

Jose Kazi shops for vegetables at the Bhutanese-owned BNN International Market on Derry Street in Harrisburg in August 2021. Mark Pynes |

Many have set up retail and restaurants along a stretch of Derry Street in Swatara Township, which is blossoming into a hub for the Bhutanese population.

Kokila Patel knows firsthand the joy of being able to shop at a grocery store that caters to her native culinary traditions from Gujarat, India.

“The first generation, we cook at home,” she said one morning while shopping at Apana Bazar Farmers Market. “The second generation works outside but wants to come home and eat our food.

Patel said she used to have to travel to New Jersey to buy food. No longer. Now there are several stores near where she lives.

“There are a lot of foods that you can’t get at the American stores,” she said.

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